Elmes, Mary (1908–2002), humanitarian worker 'righteous among the nations', was born Marie Elizabeth Jean Elmes on 5 May 1908, at Culgreine, 120 Blackrock Road, Ballintemple, Cork, the home of her parents, Edward Thomas Elmes, a pharmacist, and his wife Elizabeth Octavia (née Waters). Elizabeth's family ran Waters & Sons, a dispensing chemist on Winthrop Street, Cork, where Edward worked. Mary's only sibling, her younger brother John, later took over the family business. Edward Elmes was a committee member of the Protestant Orphans Society while Elisabeth was an active member of the Munster Women's Franchise League, on close terms with Mary MacSwiney (qv).
Educated (1915–25) at Rochelle School, Cork, Elmes then lived in Meudon, Paris, from December 1925 until January 1927, where she became fluent in French. Returning to Cork, Elmes fundraised with the Rochelle Old Girls' Association for the Cork Child Welfare League and other organisations. She matriculated in June 1928 and went on to study modern languages at TCD. She chose French and Spanish and spent a year in Madrid in 1930. She achieved exemplary exam results, won a TCD non-foundation scholarship in June 1931 and gained a first-class degree, winning the gold medal in December 1932. With glowing references from TCD professors, Elmes won a scholarship to study for the certificate in international studies at the London School of Economics. Excelling there, revelling in the internationalist worldview of the teaching faculty, she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Geneva School of International Studies in summer 1935. Working for a time at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London, and volunteering with the Save the Children charity, Elmes became friendly with Edith Pye (1876–1965), one of the directors of Friends House, the quakers' headquarters in London. Approached by Sir George Young (1872–1952) (founder of the University Ambulance Unit (UAU) during the Spanish civil war) to accompany his wife and her staff in carrying out relief work in Spain, Elmes sailed to Gibraltar in February 1937.
Motivated by the extensive civilian suffering that she encountered on arrival, Elmes volunteered with Young's UAU and was posted to a feeding station in Almería. Assisting in the administration of a newly established children's hospital in Murcia that summer, Elmes nursed destitute children as flu and measles epidemics ravaged the population, she gained valuable administrative experience in the process. Due to the ongoing targeting of the civilian population by Nationalist forces and their fascist allies, Elmes scouted out a location in Polop, a hill village ten miles inland, where child victims of the war could recuperate. She was appointed in January 1939 by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) (a quaker humanitarian organisation) to run a hospital they were establishing in Alicante. By June the area was under frequent aerial and naval bombardment so Elmes evacuated thirty children to Polop. General Franco closed all quaker relief centres, and Elmes, who was distributing food across Alicante province at the time, was evacuated in May 1939 to the AFSC regional HQ in Perpignan, France.
After holidaying in Cork for a month, Elmes was interviewed (in July 1939) by the International Committee for Child Refugees, who tasked her with delivering a literacy, cultural and educational programme in refugee camps across the south of France. Elmes visited Paris to procure Spanish language books for refugees fleeing the now-triumphant Nationalist forces in Spain. As supplies of such books became difficult to procure there, Elmes gifted her own Castillian-English dictionary to Augustí Bartra (1908–80), a noted Catalan poet. She helped to equip and set up schools in refugee camps around Perpignan, procuring furniture, books, stationery and library stock. Alongside these educational and cultural initiatives, Elmes established a milk distribution service for 2,000 severely malnourished young children and the elderly.
Pablo Casals (1876–1973), the famous Catalonian cellist exiled in Prades, headlined fundraising concerts organised by Elmes to help provide for the education of thousands of children in camps in Argelès, Cerbère and Saint-Cyprien. By this time Elmes was head of AFSC activities in the Perpignan region, recognising the distinct needs of refugee children, she had successfully lobbied the Argelès camp commandant to construct separate barracks for fourteen to seventeen-year-olds, and three to five-year-olds, where they could be housed and schooled appropriately. Elmes reunited families previously scattered around camps in the region, gaining valuable knowledge of the administrative governance and the key personnel in each camp.
A new camp at Rivesaltes near Perpignan opened in January 1941, accommodating over 9,000 internees by April. The camp initially held a variety of persecuted groups such as gypsies, communists and refugees from eastern and central Europe, around half were Jewish. Over time Rivesaltes became the main holding centre for Jews in the French 'free zone'. Tirelessly combatting the malnourishment and disease afflicting camp inmates, Elmes organised the distribution of basic foodstuffs and established a sewing workshop which produced much-needed bed clothes and underwear for inmates. She also founded holiday homes around the Pyrenées-Orientales region, allowing children brief respite from camp life.
Elmes was involved in securing the release of Arthur Adamov, the emigré Russian absurdist writer, ensuring his administrative categorisation facilitated his eventual freedom in November 1941. She helped to identify children aged between six and twelve-years-old for transportation to the USA under a Vichy-tolerated AFSC relocation scheme. Over the summer of 1942 she aided many Jews in acquiring exit visas and safe conduct papers, and so facilitated their emigration to the USA. She lobbied for the removal of those Jews, with the required papers, from convoys being prepared for transit to Drancy camp, near Paris, and onward travel to Auschwitz.
By mid-1942 the round-up of Jews in occupied France caused many to flee Vichy to the 'free zone', some of whom were arrested and interned at Rivesaltes. As Jews in the camp were being segregated for deportation, in August 1942 Elmes began extracting Jewish children from the camp, aided by other AFSC staff, allied humanitarians and supportive French administrators. A colleague of Elmes recounted, 'when the commandant at the camp of Rivesaltes … learned that the children would probably be deported … he simply “gave” the children to our delegate [Elmes] with the urgent admonition “faites les disparaitre” [make them disappear]' (quoted in Butler, 98–9). Elmes personally spirited away nine children from the first Auschwitz-bound convoy, which left Rivesaltes on 11 August 1942, to a children's colony at the Villa Saint-Christophe, a convalescent home for children in Canet Plage. Elmes often brazenly smuggled children out of Rivesaltes in the boot of her car, in broad daylight, arranging for their distribution to AFSC children's homes across the Pyréneés-Orientales region.
After Allied forces landed in North Africa in November 1942 (Operation Tourch), Elmes transferred children from the quaker home at Canet Plage, safely inland to Vernet-les-bans; other children were moved to an isolated house owned by Edith Pye, near Mosset. It has been calculated that Elmes and her colleagues shielded eighty-four per cent of all children, aged sixteen or under in the Rivesaltes camp, from deportation to the camps. Elmes personally saved at least seventy children from such a fate, and in all likelihood contributed to the survival of hundreds more.
From early 1943 Elmes began secreting incriminating documents under the bath in her apartment on the Avenue des Baléares, Perpignan. Arrested by the Sicherheitspolizei (German security police) on 5 February, on suspicion of espionage and providing Jews with forged papers (though never officially charged), Elmes was held in the SS-controlled Saint-Michel prison, Toulouse. Soon transferred to the notorious Gestapo-run Fresnes prison in Paris, she was held there alongside French resistance and Allied agents. Senior figures in the AFSC informed Seán Murphy (qv) and Robert Brennan (qv), Irish ministers to Vichy and America respectively, who lobbied on Elmes behalf, as did AFSC delegations across Europe. Released from Fresnes on 23 July, her partner Robert Danjou met her at the prison gates, and they holidayed together at Cerbère before returning to Perpignan. Elmes declined an AFSC offer a transfer to Geneva or Lisbon, donating most of the six-months' salary she had accrued to the AFSC.
Distributing food, clothes and medical equipment throughout the region, Elmes visited the local prison in Perpignan, gifting oats and darning thread to prisoners there. Closely monitored by French intelligence, Elmes's considerable personal bravery was matched by her impressive administrative acumen. She continued to secure documents, travel papers and work permits for many Jewish refugees in the closing year of the war.
Retiring from the AFSC in June 1946, Elmes married Danjou at the Perpignan town hall on 12 June 1946. That October a daughter, Caroline, was born; her godmother was Faustine Chianelli, a Corsican résistante whom Elmes shared a cell with in Fresnes. A son, Patrick followed in July 1948. Moving to an apartment in Rue Olivia, Perpignan, Elmes refused requests to advise the AFSC on the post-war reconfiguration of their services, focussing instead on her family. During a civic reception to mark the AFSC's departure from Perpignan (July 1947) Elmes was presented with a floral bouquet by the mayor. She soon afterwards purchased a farmhouse in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer, a small village east of Perpignan, which she converted into holiday accommodation and rented out. Commenting on her war time activities in 1996, Elmes said 'there was work to do … I came through without any scars. I have no regrets' (quoted in Finn, 206). Elmes refused the offer of the Légion d'honneur and died 9 March 2002 in France. Her activities were first publicised in Rosemary Bailey's Love and war in the Pyrenees (2008) and spurred further research into her wartime activities.
In late September 1942 Elmes rescued young brothers, René and Mario Freund, from Riveslates camp. They travelled to Canada where they adopted the names Ronald and Michael, with Ronald also changing his second name to Friend. Ronald's later research detailed Elmes's brave and secret work helping Jewish children to escape deportation and he nominated her for recognition as 'righteous among the nations' by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre – which she duly was on 23 January 2013. She was the only Irish person so recognised at that point, and her son and daughter accepted the honour in a ceremony near Elmes's home, in Perpignan, 27 June 2014. The same day a memorial stele was unveiled in her memory in Canet Plage where over 300 children from the camps Elmes worked in were cared for 'and for certain of them, saved from deportation to the Nazi extermination camps' (quotation from memorial stele). 'It tolls for thee', a documentary written and directed by Andrew Gallimore, contains excerpts of audio and video interviews with Elmes, as well as compelling testimony from Ronald, Michael and others she saved from certain death. Released in 2016, it was broadcast on TG4 in November 2017. The Holocaust Education Trust Ireland honoured Elmes during their 2018 Holocaust memorial day. In May 2019 the Mary Elmes pedestrian bridge opened in Cork, spanning the River Lee between St Patrick's Quay and Merchants' Quay.
Extensive records and correspondence relating to Elmes's work is held in the AFSC Archives in Philadelphia, USA.